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He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich:’ Advertising Australia’s National Food in the United States, 1968-1988

I’m pleased to announce that my article, “‘He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich:’ Advertising Australia’s National Food in the United States, 1968-1988” was published last week in a special issue of the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing on Australian Marketing History, edited by Robert Crawford. Examining the local and the global, the issue’s eight articles are organized around three of the traditional four Ps of the marketing mix: products, places, and promotions.

My own article examined a particular product: Vegemite. Chocolate-like in appearance but with a flavor like nothing else on earth, Vegemite is a yeast extract spread that is essentially synonymous with Australia. I’ve written about Vegemite before here, here, and here.

In this most recent publication, I examine how Vegemite was not an instant success when first marketed to Australian consumers in the 1920s. It was culturally resonant advertising campaigns in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, designed by the US ad giant J. Walter Thompson, that played a key role in securing Vegemite’s place in a significant share of Australia’s kitchens. These efforts included the now iconic “Happy Little Vegemites” campaign, developed for radio in 1954 and television in 1956. In rotation ever since, it is a campaign that comprises what Douglas B. Holt calls a brand’s “masterful, breakthrough performance”—an advertisement so extraordinary that it is incorporated into the culture itself.

Given Vegemite’s sales success and burgeoning cultural icon status in Australia, Kraft attempted a transnational feat in the late 1960s—to create a US market for the salty spread. J. Walter Thompson developed at least three distinct campaigns, which ran in newspapers and magazines across the USA between 1968 and 1970. Introduced to a nation only peripherally aware of Australia itself, these campaigns failed. Despite this, Vegemite and its US advertising tell us an intriguing story.

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Sample advertisements from the U.S. Vegemite campaigns. J. Walter Thompson (1968-1970), “Kraft, 1968-1970, Vegemite”, Domestic Advertisements Collection, Box KR36, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham.

Combining the approaches of advertising history, food studies, and transnational studies of popular culture, this article presents Vegemite —as both a food and cultural product—as a case study through which three interrelated themes can be explored.

First, Vegemite in the USA demonstrates the progression of American perceptions of Australia during the latter half of the twentieth century. Despite failing to capture the American market in the late 1960s, Vegemite—and Australia—captured American interest in the 1980s when a pop culture wave of Australian films, music, and sport triggered several years of success stateside.

Most notable among these was Men at Work’s 1982 hit song, “Down Under.”

The song’s second verse ignited an American fascination with Vegemite and all things Australiana:

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six foot four and full of muscle
I said, “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

(Hay and Strykert, 1981)

Second, Vegemite’s failures and successes in the USA articulate the complexity of the transnational flow, adoption, and rejection of ideas, people, and products. Appadurai (1990, 1996, 2010) has theorized extensively on the politics of ever shifting, but always connected transcultural flows and exchanges, as they challenge traditional notions of the nation-state. Indeed, scholars debate whether transnationalism represents cultural imperialism and homogenization or processes of localization and generative hybridity.

Globalization’s effects upon local food cultures and “national cuisines” are also central to these debates (Inglis and Gimlin, 2010). While scholars have explored the hegemonic potential of global food brands, such as McDonald’s (Ritzer, 2004; Watson, 1997), Coca-Cola (Foster, 2008), and Starbucks (Harrison et al., 2005; Plog, 2005), I ask what is to be made of Vegemite, as a failed cultural exchange between two nations, both former English colonies.

While efforts to tap an American taste for Vegemite ultimately failed, my analysis of US newspaper articles mentioning Vegemite between 1982 and 1988 finds that American perceptions of Vegemite fall into three main categories: excited exoticism, pleasantly bemused derision, and elitist disdain. No matter the reaction, Vegemite press coverage throughout the decade demonstrated the ambivalent and non-linear progression of American perceptions of Australia, as Americans’ at times derisive views of Australian culture comingled with enthusiastic mania for Australiana.

Third and finally, these transnational exchanges provide the opportunity to examine the cultural contexts in which advertising fails and triumphs, as well as the marketing process by which brands become icons, or not. Although J. Walter Thompson was able to transform Vegemite in Australia from an unpopular spread to a national symbol, the agency was unable to create even a modest market in the USA. Lacking significant points of cultural connection or relevance, advertising alone failed to make Vegemite meaningful to American consumers. Conversely, an influx of Australia-made popular culture in the 1980s successfully captured American appetites for the salty spread, notably without a national advertising campaign. Comparing these two moments and using Holt’s (2004) principles of cultural branding as a framework, this case study demonstrates the pivotal role of culture and environment in advertising’s functionality and effectiveness.

If you have access to the Journal, I hope you’ll read the entire piece, as well as the other fascinating articles working to chronicle the history of marketing in Australia.

Works Cited

Appadurai, A. (1990), “Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy”, Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 295-310, doi: 10.1177/026327690007002017.

Appadurai, A. (1996), Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Appadurai, A. (2010), “How histories make geographies”, Transcultural Studies, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 4-13.

Foster, R.J. (2008), Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.

Harrison, J.S., Chang, E.Y., Gauthier, C., Joerchel, T., Nevarez, J. and Wang, M. (2005), “Exporting a North American concept to Asia: starbucks in China”, Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Vol. 46 No. 2, pp. 275-283, doi: 10.1177/0010880404273893.

Holt, D.B. (2004), How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, Harvard Business Review PressBoston, MA.

Inglis, D. and Gimlin, D. (2010), The Globalization of Food, Bloomsbury Academic, New York, NY.

Plog, S.C. (2005), “Starbucks more than a cup of coffee”, Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Vol. 46 No. 2, pp. 284-287, doi: 10.1177/0010880405275535.

Ritzer, G. (2004), The McDonaldization of Society, Revised New Century Edition, Pine Forge Press (Sage), Thousand Oaks.

Watson, J.L. (Ed.) (1997), Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

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